not just for Christmas. That should have been the title of the presentation I gave to the IT Services department at Leeds Beckett University last December. Instead, I called it “It’s all Academic”. Serious title regret. I was asked to talk to the department about how to work better with Academics.
First of all, I want to say a big thank you to Sally Bogg for the invitation and to the organising committee, Mark Wood, Rob Moore, Tracy Russell, Matt Page, Ian Pette, Kieron Piercy and Tanja Lichtensteiger, for organising by far the most entertaining internal conference I have been to. The programme was informative, with excellent speakers, and incredibly fun. It was clear the team put in a huge amount of work and they completely pulled it off.
Take a look at the #ITSEvolving2017 hashtag to see the conversations delegates were having. My slides are available here and the results from the in-session polling are here. Fill your boots.
The reason I called the presentation ‘It’s all academic’ is that to me, it is. Universities exist because students want a degree. Students get degrees by learning and demonstrating that learning through assessment. To learn they must be taught and someone has to assess whether they are worthy of a degree. That is where academics come in. If there were no academics there would be no students and without students, there would be no University. We would, therefore, all be out of the job.
You will never please everyone
Fact. If you work in any kind of service or support role accept it. Move on. You’ll feel better.
An unrealistic, but effective, list
If I were a consultant who made their money speaking at conferences, peddling my 5 step programme to effective working relationships, I would have arrived at ITS Evolving with a definitive list of dos and don’ts to earn my scratch.
I’m not a consultant. I don’t get paid to speak. I don’t consider myself an expert on anything. I share my thoughts based on my experience only. But for fun, I made one up.
There were some *ahem* interesting responses to my question “what do you find most difficult about working with academics”. We’ll leave “window lickers”, “old” and “lizards” to one side for a moment as the first is a disgraceful way to describe anyone, the second a lazy stereotype and the third makes no sense at all.
To boil them down, academics are stubborn, arrogant, resistant to change, haughty, unrealistic and demanding. I will allow you to decide whether this is an accurate description based on your own experience.
I will share something with my IT colleagues, sometimes their behaviour is justified. You’re trying to do your job and guess what? They’re trying to do theirs! Given you often conflict with that, it’s hardly surprising that you are at loggerheads occasionally. That is no excuse for the rudeness of course.
If you don’t like academics, go work somewhere else. As I say at the start of the post, if there were no academics there would be no University. Learn to work with, not against them. Accept their existence or jog on.
Academics are sceptical by profession
It’s their job mate. They spend their days analysing and drawing conclusions. It’s hardly a surprise that these people will expect some evidence behind your decisions. They have a superhuman ability to smell bullshit so you better know what you’re talking about.
Their scepticism around technology is not unfounded. We are constantly reading about data and privacy issues in technology. Educational technologies are not immune to these issues. Technology can be seen as an exploitative tool of management. Check out Audrey Watters and any of Neil Selwyn‘s books for some excellent analyses on the issue.
Academics are under enormous pressure
They have ever increased (rarely decreasing) responsibilities. They are constantly being measured (module evaluations, NSS, REF, TEF et al) and monitored. They have job insecurity, a lot are hourly paid some are on probation for 5 years. Give them a break people. They have a lot to worry about.
Academics are not IT professionals
What do you want from them? Want them to maintain your SSL Cipher Suites and protocol versions over lunchtime? Yes, a basic level of capability is absolutely necessary but be reasonable people. Your job, the thing you’re paid to do, involves having expert knowledge of IT. Academics are here to teach. That’s why Universities exist.
Guess what? Not everyone likes technology as much as you! Technology is not neutral, it’s incredibly emotive. What IT depts. do has an effect on the daily lives of every person at University. Switching from one email client to another may be an insignificant change to you but to others, it’s a huge change.
Academics are people
There is no special formula you can apply. Academics are not a homogenous group. They are all different. They have good and bad days. Some of them are not very nice. But you know what? I’ve met plenty of very unpleasant IT professionals in my time.
All they want is to know what the hell is going on and to talk to a human being. Is that too much to ask?
Academics have different priorities
To me, this is the main reason IT and academics don’t get along. It may not be a priority but often IT depts. spend resource and time on support departments like HR, Registry and Finance, whilst teaching is pushed to the back of the queue.
They want you to support them with the most important part of their work. Working with students. Teaching. Helping students to learn. They want systems that enable, facilitate and improve that process. They don’t care about a new finance system.
The realistic list
I don’t think there is anything revolutionary or unachievable on this list. I don’t think there’s anything particularly difficult either, yet, we continue to have this same conversation. I don’t pretend to be an expert. I know I don’t get it right all the time but if we all try, that’s a start.
All the IT team at Leeds Beckett can do is try and they have taken the first step by acknowledging a problem and being open to change.
P.S. I’m still looking for an IT Department that will take up my idea for IT <> Academic shadowing. As Tenessee Williams put it
“I think that hate is a feeling that can only exist where there is no understanding.”
P.P.S. I used ResponseWare for my in-session polling and it was a painful experience. Opening and closing the poll was hit and miss. The essay question in to word cloud didn’t display and on the whole, it was stressful. But it was appreciated by the audience, so I wouldn’t avoid using polling again. I’d just prefer to use something like PollEverywhere.
I was invited to present at the UCISA Support Service Group #ussc17 conference in Bristol. I went to the conference last year with some IT colleagues and we presented a 20×20 called ICT vs Academics and I wrote a blog post whilst there called ICT vs Educational Technologists. This year I was invited to expand on the presentation and blog. This post summarises my main points from my presentation.
I warned delegates at the beginning of the presentation that I was going to be deliberately provocative, or as I put it, a deliberate d*ck. Why? Because being deliberately provocative makes people think. They may not like it, they may not like me, but you can guarantee they’re going to sit there arguing with me in their heads. In doing so, they’re considering what I’m saying rather than passively accepting it.
Also, if we were doing it right we wouldn’t be having a conference dedicated to it, would we?
We are prone to finding reasons why we can’t do something. Money, buy in, time etc. the list is endless. I asked the delegates to put those things aside. The people who use your services don’t know about your internal politics and why should they? Think about what you would do in an ideal world. If there were no barriers? That’s what we should be aiming for.
Who was my intended audience?
I didn’t have any one audience type in mind. The quality of service is as much the responsibility of those at the top as it is those at the bottom. It’s all interlinked. I was speaking to anyone who works in an IT role. The people who use your services don’t care about your hierarchy and nor do I.
Let me begin with a question.
I didn’t have time to pose this question during the presentation so, to those of you who work in IT, in an education institution, what do you say when people ask you what you do?
A. I work in IT.
B. I do IT in education.
Have a think dear reader, we’ll return to it later.
Who they, what do and why?
If you get that reference I should give a prize or something.
I always start off by explaining who I am. Suffice to say I am not the usual attendee; beautifully put:
I do work in the IT department but I am in a little separate department which is not only geographically separated but also feels philosophically separate too at times. So I am a member of IT services, a colleague within IT services, a user of IT services and more often than not I become the target of academic’s IT frustrations. ‘Cos I obvs work in IT innit.
I’m not an expert (in anything really). I don’t fully understand what IT services do but I would say I know enough. I’m just someone who has made a few observations over the years. I’m also a great believer that everyone deserves a champion, someone who fights for them, and I see myself as a champion of academic needs. It frustrates me to see the relationship break down because it shouldn’t and there are easy remedies to improve it.
I sit in the middle of both worlds. Academic and IT. It is a blessing and a curse. I am neither one or the other. But I am able to see things from both sides.
Acknowledging the ‘challenges’
It’s unfair to start a presentation of this kind without acknowledging the challenges IT peops deal with every day. I work on a helpdesk so these are just a few of the things I regularly get:
The people who send in a ticket at the last minute for something absolutely essential. Often happening in the next 30 minutes that they’ve known about for weeks.
The people who have emailed 3 minutes ago then email again to chase it.
The people who say they have emailed you repeatedly for something but when checked there is no record of contact from them (often when asked who they contacted, they completely ignore the question)
The people who worked as an x in the 90s. Who explain how to fix the issue, what you should do and why what the department has done is completely wrong.
The people who use all the latest tech at home, then think they should automatically be able to use that at work.
The people who email with an issue that is vital and must be fixed immediately but doesn’t reply to further information when asked.
The people who have their own money, buy something without consulting you, then expect you to make it work.
The people who provide no information e.g. I have an issue with Word.
The people who will not accept that their issue is a result of their lack of knowledge.
The people who could just Google the answer (since that’s exactly what you will end up doing anyway).
The people who are just downright rude…
In my slides, I used the word customer. *Hand slap* for not following my own advice.
IT is the broad side of the barn
You are an easy target, no a HUGE target. Chiefly because what you do affects people’s everyday lives. IT underpins every single process at a University. I can’t think of a single example that doesn’t involve IT. People get into work and spend the day using the services you offer them. Expect them to be laid back about it? Think they’re gonna be chilled when it breaks? Think again.
Technology is not neutral. It's emotive. It's affective. It touches people's lives #ussc17
Plus you’re never going to win. Noone knows what they want. Nobody wants the same thing and you’re always going to upset/disappoint someone. Accept it. Let it go.
Technology won’t save us
Two brilliant quotes about technology from smarter people than I. Technology won’t save education. There is no single solution. But there is a perception that technology is the panacea to solve all ills. This is what IT departments are faced with and why the pressure on them continues to rise.
“When you decide [there is] a problem, then you naturally start looking for a solution…and then you go to the technology to be a solution and everyone is disappointed.” David White and Donna Lanclos – Being Human is Your Problem ALTc2016
Kill the witch
If you don’t understand it, it’s magic.
If you practice magic you’re a witch.
Kill the witch.
James Holden – July 2015
IT is a dark art. Few people really know what you do and even fewer understand it. I don’t suppose we need to. If we all understood and knew how to do what you do, then we wouldn’t need you. I sometimes get the feeling that IT people like to nurture that mystique. IT is hidden away in offices as far away from people as possible and ITSM tools are introduced to avoid dealing with anyone directly (sorry, to effectively manage…zzz). All people want to know is who to contact and what’s happening. They hate ticket ping pong. IT processes are complex and convoluted usually obscured by mountains of paperwork and meetings. We get it, they don’t. The people who use your services are not ITIL experts.
Mine, mine, mine
IT departments often feel they own the ‘thing’ they support. It feels like products and services are selected based solely on IT preference and what’s easiest for you.
“systems are setup to meet ICT needs rather than academic needs.” – anonymous academic 2016
If someone says they need something, who are you to decide whether they do or not? Who are you to decide whether it’s worthwhile or not? You have become the gate keepers.
A noteworthy response on Twitter:
Until it goes wrong then its "ICT, your damn system isn't working" #ussc17
It’s ours when it breaks. Yes, it is, because YOU ARE THE PEOPLE PAID TO MAKE IT WORK AND KEEP IT WORKING. If we could all maintain our own IT infrastructure (a terrible idea) then we wouldn’t bother with an IT department. You are the experts in all the technical aspects of technology, how it integrates, how to install it, how it needs to be maintained, however, in my experience, IT departments know very little about how some technology is used or why and worse, they spend very little time finding out.
Computer says no
Not a lot to say here that you don’t already know. The people who use your services don’t understand the complexity behind what you do. They don’t know about service level agreements, security, integration, data management, change management etc. and you don’t do a very good job of explaining it.
When you say no you never explain why it’s a no.
Where innovation goes to die
Universities are under enormous pressure to offer students an ‘excellent’ experience and outcomes. Thanks to module evaluations, TEF and NSS staff are under increasing pressure to ‘perform’. Sadly, technology is seen as the magic bullet to solve every aspect of Higher Education and innovation is the way to do it. Innovation appears in every strategy. Innovative pedagogies, innovative research, innovative use of technology in education etc. Technology is your department. Expectations are rising and you’re the first in the firing line. “I wanted to innovate but IT said no”.
I’m not listening
A key part of communication is listening. You show people you care by listening and acknowledging them. You can’t do your job properly unless you get to know people. How can you say you understand people if you don’t talk to them? Do you know what people do? Do you understand the pressures on them? How can you prioritise something without understanding it first?
Empathy is key. If you employ people on your service desk who can’t empathise then you’re asking for trouble.
The best thing we can do is listen and not make assumptions about what is right or best. Neil Milliken
Francesca Spencer, a project manager at Leeds Beckett University, did a fantastic parallel session called ‘Technophobe testing – an experience of providing a service to those who fear, dislike, or avoid technology’. It was a fantastic demonstration of project management going wrong. The team created a brand new learning space with all the bells and whistles but the users of the room hated it. Why, because they didn’t speak to users to understand how people actually use a teaching space! They learnt their lesson. The presentation is available here.
What’s teaching got to do, got to do with it?
EVERYTHING. Otherwise, what the hell are we all doing here? I don’t think a University will survive when the students stop turning up and why do they come to University? To be taught, to learn and, if they put in the effort required, receive a degree. I have heard an IT employees say “we have nothing to do with teaching”. Do people use your services as part of teaching, as part of the administration of teaching and management of students? YES. Then you have everything to do with teaching. Any thoughts otherwise are ill-informed and ignorant.
You remember I asked you what you say when you’re asked what you do? THIS IS WHY. I have often had the feeling that IT people see themselves as IT professionals. On the whole, this is fair, you do IT one place it’s relatively similar everywhere but I see a distinction. The problem with IT people is they don;t see themselves as IT people in education. There is a subtle difference. If you see yourself as the latter you will understand your context and context makes a difference. IT in a business is different to IT in a University. The technology may be the same but the people, the drivers, the pressures are not.
People what a bunch of b*stards
People are messy, complicated, rude, impatient, and tiresome but people are the reason we’re here. They are not homogenous. They are real people with feelings and needs. They are not users or customers. They are people. Get to know them, you’ll be surprised what you’ll find out:
“corporately there is little feel for the academics’ problems…so no ICT member builds an empathy with the academic regarding the particular issue.” – anonymous academic 2016
“I don’t generally feel well supported, but the personal contact is good. It’s not that I want to bad mouth individuals but am happy to blame a faceless organisation, but systematically, it fails to support me.” – anonymous academic 2016
Our weapons against evil
Come out of the basement.
Stop hiding from people. Be seen. Own the good, the bad and the ugly. People will respect you more.
Prioritise people skills.
Employ people with people skills. ICT skills can be learnt. Learning how to deal with people is much harder. Ensure a people skills ‘test’ is part of your recruitment process.
Support your Service Desk.
Service Desk is often the first to get the blame. Support them. Provide them with the information they need, if they don’t know, they don’t know. Thank them. Be grateful they bear the brunt of your disgruntled customers.
Reward and recognise people.
Find a way to recognise and reward those who go out of their way to provide good service. This will help develop the people first culture. It will become the norm.
Don’t sell tech as a solution.
I am guilty of this. So are tech companies. Don’t join in. Technology is not a solution, it can only be part of the solution. Don’t oversell what it can do. Everyone will be disappointed.
Find a way. Have a team who deal solely with ‘new’ requests and ideas. Get the resources. Your University is full of evidence to back up what you need. Start using it. Create a process for pilots, for trying stuff out and then how those pilots are assessed and become production. A clear process will be beneficial to everyone.
Advocate not oppose.
Linked to above. Help people achieve, be their champion. You’ll find they will become your champion too. Facilitate and help. Don’t just say no.
Create a feedback loop.
Could be as simple as ‘you said, we did’. Show you are listening and acting on it. People will wait patiently as long as they know something is being done.
Drop the jargon.
Stop using phrases like customers. They’re people. Use their names. Don’t use your ITIL jargon either. Speak to people in a language they will understand.
There are lots of false assumptions out there. People don’t need training – they do. Students can all use technology – they can’t. Don’t fall for them. Don’t be guilty of promoting them. When you assume you fail.
Learn about people.
You can’t do a good job if you don’t understand the people you are here to help.
Be honest. Show your workings. Explain things to people in a language they understand, expose your processes and limit the documentation barrier.
Good ‘customer’ service is not the same as saying yes.
This thought occurred to me as I wrote this post. Often, we conflate good service with saying yes to everything. No’s are a necessary evil of our job. You can’t avoid saying no although, if you can find a way to say yes, you should. Good customer service, no let’s not use that phrase, let’s say treating people well is free. You can still treat people well when saying no or when a resolution is taking time. Be transparent about your decision-making process when saying no. Be clear from the outset what your process will be, what hoops you need to jump through, what you need from them, try to give a timescale and most importantly keep them updated especially when timescales move. When dealing with someone having an issue the same principal applies. They just want to know. They want to be considered. They want to be important to you.
So how’d it go down?
Well other than my having forgotten that I had used a custom font and having hideous slides it went OK. I forgot to say everything I wanted to but it was not a complete dumpster fire and I can live with that.
For the audience, I imagine it went down like a cup of hot sick or it was taken in the spirit it was intended. I’m not a highly paid consultant, I’m just a person sharing some thoughts. Take them or leave them. If a handful went away thinking about the way they treat people then we’re all winners.
But just because it does the job, doesn’t mean we can’t seek something better. Should discussions about next-gen digital learning environments be restricted by a “what we have now works” mentality?
The conversation so far
Jisc recently began a Co-design consultation which seeks the next big ideas on their six challenge areas. Details of the challenges and rationale behind the consultation can be found on the Jisc Co-design consultation 2016-17 page. The 2nd of the six challenges asks
What should the next generation of digital learning environments do? Jisc 2016
I took part in a tweetchat today that encouraged me to write this follow-up blog. You can see the tweets under the #codesign16 hashtag. It lead me to respond to something that troubled me. The conversation seems to be in a loop. We keep returning to tech bashing, being restricted by the possibilities available to us now and not seeing a problem with what we have now. To me, we are missing the possibilities that bringing together so many great minds to discuss could offer.
We need a problem to solve
Do we? Where will “there’s nothing wrong with what we have now” get us? Well it’ll keep us exactly where we are now. There may not be a problem with the VLE, although the amount of dislike for them suggests otherwise, but do we really need a problem to solve to improve it? There’s no denying the VLE does a job, how well and what job it’s there to do is debatable. Whilst I strongly believe technology should always be led by pedagogy there is an opportunity for technology to open up new ways of working and interacting. Donna summed it up nicely:
I don’t want technology to solve problems but to create possibilities #codesign16
We need to free ourselves from problem = solution thinking. We are looking in to the future, what’s next, how do we prepare for that? What does that future look like for learning and teaching? We need to think big, dream big, otherwise we may as well not think at all. VLEs have remained largely unchanged since their inception. Clearly, they must be doing something right or it’s just we don’t know what the alternative is. I strongly believe we can and should strive for something better.
Discussion keeps getting caught up in the ‘what we have’ loop. We are stuck in what we can do now. We shouldn’t limit our thinking just because what we want might not be technically possible now. I believe if you have the idea the tech will follow, to steal a phrase from a Kevin Costner classic “if you build it they will come”.
The features we have now are not important. What we want is important. It may be that what we want looks very similar to what we have now. There’s nothing wrong with that but lets not start out with that mentality. Forget what we have now, put it aside, think about what you could have if there were no barriers. That is what we are doing in this discussion, we are escaping the realm of possibility. It’s hard to think beyond what we have now, but to do anything meaningful, it must be done.
Tech bashing achieves nothing
Look a lot of us don’t like the VLE. A lot of us are frustrated by its shortcomings. But lamenting over its failings is not what this discussion is about. We can go over all the things that are wrong or right with the VLE but that ain’t gonna get us anywhere. It helps to think about shortcomings but only when followed by a solution. If you see something is wrong, what would you like to see instead? How would you solve it? How would you make it better? We can keep bashing the tech all day long but we need to get on with the job in hand.
The next generation digital learning environment should be an enabler, not a service. It should allow us to join all these things together. The walls we built to keep our students in our existing VLEs need to be taken down – not just made a bit more porous. Marcus Elliott 2016
I would argue current VLEs do nothing more than replicate what we do in ‘real life’. Tests in class can be done online, papers handed in to an office are submitted online and conversations had face to face in class can be done in online discussion forums. Is this what we want? A replication of what we do? Or something that helps us think of new ways?
The VLE is essentially a piece of software nothing more, it has features, links to other services, internal and external, but it has somehow become a feature of the institution. One so powerful it should not be questioned. Some of us like it, some hate it, others tolerate it but we all (academics anyway) have to use it. Just because according to the ICT feature list it does the job, does not mean it can live in our universe unquestioned. We are held to ransom by its size and it’s power over us but that does not mean we should comply to its whims. We shouldn’t have to bend our teaching and learning strategies because “that’s the way the VLE works”. Perhaps the VLE should start bending to our whims and our needs. It can do better. It can do more. It can do what it does already better. So let’s stop having the same old conversation and start looking forward. What do you want it to become?
Digital = People
To find the next-gen learning environment we must focus on people. Not technology. Let’s look at what people want to do, how they want to interact with their students and how technology can support and facilitate that. If you want a problem concentrate on finding out what is stopping people from using tech and what is restricting their use. People are key. They use the tech. They are the priority.
Ever since the inception of the VLE it feels like we have been asking ourselves this question. We await the next generation, the technology that will save us all from the tyranny of the VLE. VLE (or LMS for my American friends) systems are a divisive technology in education. Some people hate them, others love them, most tolerate them. The benefits of their use are still questioned and explored. So if we’re not convinced that they are beneficial, why won’t they die?
If you haven’t read this post, titled Christ, I hate Blackboard written by user Davenoon please do. Not only is it hilarious, it demonstrates the level of loathing the VLE can produce.
“These are the words, if I could shit them into being, that I would use to catalogue the depth of my loathing for Blackboard.” Davenoon 2014
The comments that follow the article demonstrate the dichotomy of feeling that surrounds the VLE. This post will not debate the virtues of Blackboard, Canvas or Moodle. What I am interested in is why we are still using them. How, given the speed of technical innovation in all other areas, the VLE remains very much unchanged from where it began.
We are asking the wrong question
We constantly ask what the next generation of each technology we use should do. Therein lies my issue, what it should do. What features it should have, what functionality we expect. But this narrows our thinking. Boils learning to a series of tasks and processes. Learning is much more complex than that.
So the question ought not to be why won’t the VLE die, what the next generation should do; rather what do we want to explore. What pedagogies? What teaching methods and strategies? How will technology support or enhance those things?
We allow ourselves to be technology lead
This point really relates to the one above. We spend so much time worrying about the technology, why it doesn’t work, why we hate it, what we want to see, what’s next, that we miss the most fundamental thing.
Technology use is about people. Technology would be nothing if we didn’t use it. It is that interaction between teacher, technology and student that we should be concentrating on. How can technology help to facilitate this interaction, how can it support or enhance it? We should ensure that the technology enhances, not detracts, from the humanity of the learning process.
Technology is created the wrong way
We are feature focused. Probably because that is the way our minds work. We think about activities, “I want students to do x”, because really most technologies just replicate what we do. They rarely fundamentally change our activities, they might make something easier, sometimes technology even enhances an activity but it’s rare that it replaces it entirely.
It’s hard to escape this way of thinking and I’m not smart enough to suggest how we can do it. It is easier to think about features, “I want to be able to do x”, as that is how we are conditioned. Imagine if we could. If our ideas were unbound from reality, to what currently exists and what is currently possible.
When VLEs were first created I’m sure they were answering a teaching need, chiefly the ease of access to materials for students, sadly since then ‘the problem’ appears to have been forgotten and what has been created seems to be a feature heavy unusable beast. Lots of features are being added without rationalisation or thought about how people actually use them or how they interact with ‘real world’ teaching.
We like things that reproduce what we already do.
VLEs were supposed to be a revolution. According to many the VLE would replace the lecture and, in the opinion of many doom mongers, the lecturer too. Students would all learn online without once meeting face to face and the University would crumble in to oblivion. That hasn’t happened (yet) and I can’t see any evidence of an appetite for that amongst the majority of the student body.
Neil Selwyn, in his 2013 book Digital Technology and the Contemporary University: Degrees of Digitization, describes technology as replicating what we do in the real world. The thought had never occurred to me but as I reflected I realised how true that is. We do in class tests, now we do them online. We used to hand in paper assignments, now we do that online. We ask students to discuss topics in class, now we use online discussion boards. We carry out our lectures and seminars online using video conferencing but we’re still largely following the same format as a face to face session, it’s just online. Yes in all of these examples the technology may have brought some efficiency or flexibility but it has made little fundamental change to our processes.
Change is easiest accepted when it’s incremental and I have always found explaining the use of technology easiest when I relate it to something people are already doing. I’m not entirely sure we are ready for a revolution.
Adoption is a matter of culture change
Even if we had something different. We would need to change the existing culture and processes. If you’ve ever introduced something new in to HE, you’ll feel the pain of this process. It is not quick, it’s not painless and it certainly isn’t easy.
Because we will never win
Even IF we could think of something different, some incredible revolutionary environment, I can absolutely guarantee someone would say it doesn’t work for them. It doesn’t suit their needs or their teaching style. So what we end up with is a bloated, mangled, customised behemoth to make sure that everyone is catered for. Then we receive complaints that it’s bloated, mangled and customised and no-one wants to use it.
In my experience, when it comes to technology, we are never going to win.
ICT dictate what we do
Related to the points below, ICT in my experience largely dictate what we can and can’t have. Rightly so, they need to make sure it works with their infrastructure, is sustainable and reliable. But why should we be shackled by their infrastructure? Should we be held back because they do not have the staff with the necessary skills?
Controversial I am sure but it has to be asked. Why do ICT think that they are experts on the learning process? On teaching? On students? They are the experts on technology, on infrastructure, networks etc. but they have limited experience in any other area. If this is what we need to move forward why should they be allowed to hold us back?
Other technologies hold us to ransom
Related to the point above the existing infrastructure will often not allow us to explore what we need to. We are limited by student management systems, timetable systems etc. that we want to plug-in to our environments but won’t work with one another. This is the ICT departments headache and one of the reasons they can be dictatorial about what we adopt.
Our processes hold us to ransom
Neil Selwyn describes the VLE as a tool of management and surveillance. Another way for management to keep an eye on teaching staff. Again, I had never thought of it that way. It helps to explain the scepticism and mistrust that surrounds it. As the VLE has become part of management it has resulted in a high number of processes being integrated with the VLE. In many instances the VLE has become an absolute necessity for these processes to be completed. Once a technology is part of a process it’s very difficult to remove it and even more difficult to persuade people that they can change it. We are creatures of habit.
Relationships between departments, in any sector, can be difficult and HE is no exception. But this came as a bit of a surprise to me whilst enjoying a tipple in the evening at the UCISA Support Services Group conference. Apparently some ICT staff are not keen on the educational technologists at their institution.
I’ve used the name educational technologists though I know full well there are hundreds of different job titles. You may call yours digital education developers, learning technologists, elearning technologists, technology enhanced learning advisers, online content developers and so on.
I’ve never felt any animosity (or any extraordinary animosity) from my colleagues in ICT. There is the usual “that’s not our job” tension but that’s nothing unusual. Perhaps I am oblivious to it or we never work with people who feel this way. I imagine it is an equal mix of the former and latter. So it came as a shock to hear how negatively the Ed Techs are thought of by ICT staff in some institutions. So I thought I’d write down a few thoughts about why this might happen and how we can avoid it.
Dear Ed Techs: ICT are busy
ICT departments are incredibly busy places to work. They have a very broad customer base who pull them in a number of directions. Students, academics, professional services etc. are all vying for their attention. Not only that but they actually have to maintain all of the systems as well as put new ones in. None of these things are easy. We should remember and be mindful of that.
Dear ICT: We are busy too
There is a perception, rightly or wrongly, that Educational technologists float around messing about with new fun technologies. That we spend our days thinking up ways to make ICT’s life more difficult. I assure you we don’t mean to. Whilst we occasionally get to do fun stuff we are most often bogged down in supporting staff in how to use the VLE. Most often training staff on the basic functions.
Dear Ed Techs: ICT are under pressure
I have already mentioned the pressures that a diverse customer base causes ICT. Often it is whoever shouts loudest that gets heard. How many times have staff emailed your ICT Director to complain they weren’t being dealt with quickly enough?
Dear ICT: We are under pressure too
Technology in education has become more and more important. The TEF puts innovation at the heart of teaching. For some reason institutions think by sticking some technology in to teaching it will somehow become innovative. We all know there is no quick answer. Therefore, ed techs are seen as the people to transform teaching. That we can make everyone innovative with a click of our fingers. Unfortunately, we have to start making a significant change. To do that we need to have the infrastructure in place and ICT, that’s where you come in.
Dear Ed Techs: Stop asking for seemingly random stuff
To ICT it probably seems like our requests come out of nowhere. Sometimes they do. We know our rationale. We remember the conversations we have had with staff and students on the subject. We have looked at the alternatives. But ICT have a process they go through and trying to avoid it, because it’s usually long-winded and laborious, is not going to get it done any quicker.
Dear ICT: Let’s not argue
Sometimes it would be nice for us not to have to argue. Filling out your long-winded paperwork and endless meetings. Unless you plan on sitting down and testing all the options I’m sure you’re going to go with whatever we suggest anyway. Also we know our users so we may not go for the shiniest thing with all the features we might just go for what we know they’ll use. That may seem odd to you but we have thought it through I promise.
Dear Ed Techs: ICT have a limited budget
Although ICT budgets appear huge to an outsider they are not and they are usually allocated for specific projects. Enterprise infrastructure is expensive. So when you roll up with “its only 2k” that may seem insignificant but it’s not. It’s a lot of money when every penny has been carefully allocated at the start of the year. Find out when the budget run is and try to get your requests in as early as possible.
Dear ICT: We don’t have a budget
Our team doesn’t have a budget for technology and licensing. That doesn’t seem to be something the University thinks would be helpful. So we rely heavily on ICT. When we say we have no money, we really mean it. Let’s work together to secure an ‘innovation’ fund. So when we ask you for stuff there is some money set aside already.
Dear Ed Techs: ICT don’t want to install stuff just because it’s cool
We all want to play with the latest thing. If anything that’s kind of our job but ICT have enough to do. They can’t just install stuff because we think it’s cool.
Dear ICT: We need a way to play with the cool stuff
Technology changes quickly. Educational technology changes quickly and we need to be able to move with that change. If it takes a year to get something installed it’s often out of date by then. What would be great is if we could have some way of installing things, testing them and, retiring them if they are not well used or rolling them into production if they are.
Dear Ed Techs: ICT have a process
ICT sometimes appears to be being difficult for the sake of it. I know that is not the case. Many ICT departments use a framework called ITIL which help to process the vast number of tasks they have to complete. It also helps to prioritise what they are doing, when they do it and who does it. ICT go through a demand management process. They get so many requests they have to prioritise and schedule them.
Dear ICT: We can’t do it without you
We are not able, nor should we, nor would you like it, if we started building up servers and installing anything we like willy-nilly. Nor do you appreciate it when people buy stuff without your knowledge. So we need you to do stuff for us. Trust me there are times where we’d much rather just do it ourselves but we can’t. We have to go through you.
You know we need you.
Dear Ed Techs: What you think is important may not be top priority
Sometimes there are pressures on their time and activities that have to take priority. We may not agree with them but we have to be mindful that our priorities may not always be aligned. Take a deep breath and don’t chuck your toys out of the pram. Try and work within the existing systems rather than outside them. You’ll probably get somewhere much faster.
Dear ICT: Please acknowledge that teaching is important
I have acknowledged the diverse needs that constantly pull on ICTs time. But I will finish with my biggest frustration. That you don’t acknowledge that teaching is important and ultimately why we are here.
If teaching is terrible students won’t turn up. If students don’t turn up we won’t have jobs. Yes I know that the finance system, HR system and WiFi are all important. They underpin everything. But if a lecture theatre computer is broken that’s not a big issue in the grand scheme. But it’s a massive issue for that member of staff and those students. Acknowledge that when they call you. Fix it quickly. Don’t leave it for days.
Dear ICT: Let’s work together
You play a crucial role in the University. What you do, day-to-day, affects everyone. There are few departments who have such an impact on people’s lives. We rely on you. So let’s just start working together. Let’s talk about how we can work together. What we need from you and what you need from us. What we can do together to make a difference. Let’s stop focusing on problems and start finding solutions.
Day three ends on a high. Today has been about thinking differently. I think I’ll leave thinking differently. Considering I was not sure I’d enjoy SSG I sit here sad it’s over.
TOPdesk It’s not just for IT!
Sandra Gillham, IT Service Desk Manager, Keele University and Hannah Price, Senior Consultant, TOPdesk
Sandra found services at Keele were too disjointed. For example she described the student going back and forth between student records and ICT because one says they have a record and the other says they don’t. She wanted to do something about it. So she started by getting a 360 view of her students. She mapped all the services that feed in to the student journey. Students see one university, the don’t see that a University is made up of several disjointed departments. So she started to get other departments to start using the same service desk management software
Getting staff buy in wasn’t easy. Prying email away was difficult. Sandra asked the management to get their junior members doing the work. What will make their lives easier? What will make us more efficient? Slowly changing attitudes.
Continuing to improve with thinking skills
Chris Warlow, Teacher and Mathematics/Cognitive Education Leader, Birchgrove Primary School.
Chris works primarily with children in schools. His presentation is pitched at an appropriate level for us after last night. Chris works at a “thinking school” where students develop their thinking skills to ready them for life-long learning. He began with some brain teasers. A risky strategy, given last night’s frivolity. I am rubbish at brain teasers. Lots of ooohs and aaahs ensue as the answers are revealed.
He described the tools he uses with his students, I won’t detail them all. You can find details for all on that Google thing. Thinking maps are used to help students organise and visualise their thinking. Circle tools, bubble maps etc. Flow maps are used to help students sequence and order processes. Tree maps are used for classifications and grouping. Multi-flow maps for cause and effect. To see analogies Chris uses a bridge map.
Edward DeBono’s Thinking Hat – nope it’s not the name of an indie band. Each hat represents the following – objective, intuitive, negative, positive, creative and process. The hats are detailed online here.
Habits of Mind – thinking intelligently. Summed up by “think before you punch someone in the face”. Good advice at all stages of life.
What did I learn? I still hate comic sans. He looked like Professor Brian Cox. Getting people to think differently is so important. Harder in adults but doable.
Think and act like a hacker to protect your company’s assets
I started this hoping that Paula would tell us how the Matrix works. She didn’t. What she did was cleverly demonstrate the importance of information security.
Paula uses social engineering experiments to make her point. “You’d never say a blonde woman could be dangerous”. Oh so wrong. She then tells the story of how she hacked in to a secure building utilising the “ladies first culture”. He opens the secure door and waves her in. Brilliant.
Awareness > behaviour (competence) > culture. I know > I do > We know and do.
Behaviour comes with awareness. Culture comes with understanding.
Passwords are really important. 15% of passwords were found written on and around the workstations at physical security tests. She then did a live demonstration of hacking passwords. I didn’t get it. But it was damned impressive. She used existing Windows tools ARGH? I know nothing but I know that ain’t good.
I got a bit lost here. She did clever techy things and I went to sleep.
Don’t pick up random USB sticks. PLEASE DON’T PLUG THEM IN. Don’t click on suspicious links in emails. This is called Phish Biting. Emails with what looks to be legitimate context. Be careful when connecting to public WiFi. Someone might be listening.
People are the problem. People take short cuts. They make mistakes. We avoid hard stuff. We need to make people aware of the issues. Unless they are aware they won’t change their behaviours and develop a culture of security.
Paula shows a frightening (yet curiously thrilling) world full of dark shadowy characters after my data. I’ve never thought of myself as that interesting.
What did I learn? Paula is a ninja. People are a problem.The world is scary.
This is the second time I have seen Andy speak. Andy describes his work as “seeking out happy people and following them around”. Happiness is good for you and your well-being. It’s also good for the people around you.
Andy is brilliant himself and lives what he espouses. He’s a happy man. He’s funny. He’s engaging. Banish the four horsemen of negativity monotony, tiredness, complexity and news (and change). If you have any of those things in your life you will feel “minor glumness” in the pit of your stomach.
The same thinking will reap the same results
Stop the Monday vs Friday rhetoric. Pretend Monday is Friday. Be happy now. It’s not a destination. ‘Busy-ness’ is not OK, not an excuse. The fact is we buy fewer oranges because we don’t have time to peel them. Wow. What nonsense. Be like Bob the Builder. Yes we can. Chuck out the emergency pants. You know those grey ones at the back with a hole in. Wear your special pants.
What a way to end the conference. On a high. Choose to be happy. It’s going to be OK people, it’s going to be O.K. Think happy, be happy.
Three brilliant days
I loved UCISA SSG. Three days with wonderfully open, funny, clever and welcoming people. Thank you for letting this outsider in.
UCISA SSG continues to surprise me on day two. There was a bit about shiny stuff, a word from our students, a bit about processes, a bit about bees and some fervent dancing.
Thinking outside the Box. How a little bit of box made a big difference
Chris Dixon, Head of Operations, Lancaster University and Valerie Focke, Head of Education, EMEA, Box.com
Today’s business showcase was a big improvement on yesterdays. Chris shared his experience of implementing Box for the storage, management and sharing of files at Lancaster University. He highlighted the reasons for their decision. Chiefly, staff found the existing file management and sharing services ineffective. Particularly, sharing files outside of the organisation.
I love a student panel. They are always fascinating and it’s nice to hear from them directly.
IT services need to keep up
They talked about the need to make emerging technologies available so that students are prepared for the tech world. By the time they finish their studies the technology has changed so we need to prepare them.
They were asked how they like to be contacted. One said social media as that’s where they get their news. A mature student (that’s how she described herself) preferred email. Most importantly they felt that their lecturers need to be informed about ICT issues/services/tools etc. As often their lecturers are the ones introducing them to the tools.
They were asked about our marketing materials or “communications guff” as it was described. They all said it was overwhelming in induction week. They were bombarded with too much information. It would end up on a shelf never to be looked at again. Their preference would be to search for the information WHEN they need it. Not have it forced on them at every turn.
There was a misinterpretation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, the one with Wi-Fi at the bottom, which meant students were asked whether Wi-Fi was at the bottom of their priorities. Wi-Fi is actually the most important in the hierarchy as it becomes more important than basic physiological needs like eating, drinking and sleeping. They all agreed it was very important but not the be all and end all.
The dreaded lecture capture reared its ugly head. Questions of value for money and other nonsense. The students all said they like the personal interaction of a lecture.
Attendance monitoring arose, described by one student as ‘Big Brother’. One argued they are adults, they pay for lectures and whether they turn up is their decision. This was met with staunch opposition in the audience. My argument would be if they’re not turning up then the lecture needs work. They shouldn’t have to choose whether a lecture is worth their time. It should be to begin with.
The students didn’t feel ICT was approachable. It was described as hidden away, intimidating and they were reticent to interrupt people at work.
Some said 24 hour contact with ICT is important to them. Another said they didn’t need 24/7 they just want to know when their issue will be resolved and dealt with. They liked the use of live chat and video support.
Use of social media was preferred to remain personal and some felt, or were told, it was not appropriate for their studies. I don’t agree but I can see why they wouldn’t want us in their social media.
What did I learn? Students aren’t homogeneous. Don’t treat them that way. Stop saying “our students want” instead go and ask them. Remember, you’re going to struggle to please everyone.
How big business, and a bee, started our customer service journey at Leeds Beckett
What an animated and passionate team they have at Leeds Beckett. Eleanor told us about their redevelopment of their Service Desk Environment. Old fashioned counters were removed to create an open, inviting, friendly zone for staff and students to drop in to. Eleanor talked about the old counters being barriers between the service desk staff and the users. The work they have done, despite some difficult times in the project, has removed those barriers.
They have open spaces where staff and students can stroll in to. They even have a genius bar. They have principles that all staff have to adhere to and they recognise that the attitudes of the people they employ are just as important as the environment.
Embracing Open Badges: Showcasing staff and student achievement at York St John University
Roisin Cassidy, Technology Enhanced Learning Advisor, York St John University
I have always been a sceptic about badges. It feels faddy. Like the stars McDonalds used to give their staff. A bit…insincere. Rosin has changed my mind. Eroded some of my scepticism.
Open badges are based on a shared standard and contain metadata. The metadata says what the badge was earned for, who issued it and where from. The metadata follows the badges. York St John have been giving badges for participation in their CPD and Roisin shared some examples of uses in the curriculum. Getting the – “what and the why” is important to get right from the start. What is it for, why would people want it, what are the criteria and how will it be evidenced. I can see badges working well if we get that part right from the start. I’m thinking of starting with our CPD offering and go on from there.
Agile tools and techniques
Colin Jones, Web and Applications Team Leader, Robert Gordon University
I must confess to not having concentrated fully during this presentation. Forgive me Colin, it wasn’t you. I had an academic in crisis who needed help. Agile is nothing new. The scrum meeting concept isn’t either. There’s lots online about it. Sorry I can’t say much on the subject.
Marmite: academics and a toast to the IT crowd?
Mark Schofield, Dean, Teaching and Learning Development, Edge Hill University
This was an amazing presentation. Clearly Mark is a veteran. Mark is an academic who has worked in a number of institutions at home and abroad. He had a very insightful (and brilliantly funny) presentation. Which illustrated, as so many have during this conference, that we need to work together to do anything well. He represented the problem as a humpback bridge with ICT professionals on one side and academics on the other unable to see one another. Mark used memes brilliantly. The featured image for this post is one he used to describe ICT Professionals. (Based on this conference, and the passion they demonstrate, they don’t all take that attitude) He acknowledged we are all difficult beasts. But with mutual respect and empathy we can do some brilliant things.
This has to be my favourite presentation. Everyone was transfixed. What a showman.
Process improvement partnerships: continuous improvement at Leeds Beckett University
Clare Wiggins, Continuous Improvement Manager, Leeds Beckett University
I ended the day with some play. Clare talked us through continuous improvement at Leeds Beckett and then let us run riot with the Mr Potato Heads (MPH). The idea was to form a plan then as a team try to construct MPH as quickly and accurately as possible. We recorded our time each go and our accuracy. We then talked about how we’d do it better and tried again. Long story short we had been continuously improving by reflecting on our work.
It was great fun, a nice interjection to the day, but what did I learn? Don’t try. Be rubbish and people will be amazed by the improvement. We had the fastest time but won nothing. I’m not bitter. (I am bitter)
How do you measure up
Sally Bogg, Head of End User Services, Leeds Beckett University
Sally finished the day by sharing the results of this years benchmarking survey. It was really useful to hear about the work other University’s are doing. It’s also useful to know where you stand in the wider community.
Dinner was a formal affair. Beautifully decorated with Alice in Wonderland themed tables. Dinner was followed by much dancing. The brilliant Ten Hail Marys played some serious funk, ska and indie classics. I lost my mind when Mr Brightside came on. The night was finished perfectly by the final song:
So throw those curtains wide
One day like this a year would see me right – One day like this, Elbow
We’ve got a lot of change to come. Education is being systematically ripped apart by people so far removed from it they may as well be on the International Space Station. Remember HE is a wonderful profession to work in. Remember why we do it and who we do it for. It will be OK. Keep calm. Carry on.
What did I learn? ICT Professionals + free wine = serious shapes thrown.
This is my first UCISA Support Services Group conference. It has always been, in my mind, “not for me”. It has always struck me as being for ICT professionals. That the presenters and attendees will not speak my language. I imagined it being full of tedious sessions with people droning on about their latest implementation of something or other. So far SSG16 has been quite wonderfully the opposite.
Love that #USSC16 has been (thus far) so people focussed. People first, technology second. Service excellence. Duty. Responsibility.
This phrase is a bug bare of mine. “Our staff/students are all tech-savvy and want to use xyz”. NO they are not. If you go and sit with enough of them you’ll soon see. It’s dangerous to assume that your users know how to do what you think they should. It’s not just dangerous, it’s arrogant. Stop it. If you’ve not seen the work Jisc has been doing around digital capabilities then go and take a look at their blog Jisc digital capability codesign challenge blog and James Clay’s elearning stuff blog.
Delivering excellence in public services; customers, challenges and collaboration
Aline Hayes, Director of Business Change and Information Solutions, Sheffield City Council
Aline delivered an interesting presentation on the approach to service delivery at Sheffield City Council. She emphasised the importance of engagement and collaboration with the end-user. There was some practical detail about their approach to ‘suppliers’ working as services or partners. She emphasised the important role the council plays in the loves of vulnerable people and how even the seemingly insignificant loss of services can have big consequences.
There was a lot of talk of customers. HE staff shudder at the word (though it’s not surprising for the council to use the term). Let’s not use the word but lets assume the principles that the word invokes. Trust, empathy, service and care. Our students and staff are using our services. Those services should be quality.
Despite being interrupted by a fire alarm evacuation Aline continued her delivery with aplomb.
Problem management on a shoestring!
Garry Hunter, Problem Manager, Northumbrian Water Group
I really enjoyed this presentation. Not only did Garry deliver it with zeal and engagement but he was making sense. Get to the root of the problem, fix it so it doesn’t happen again. Yes please. He’ll know he’s done a good job when they make him redundant.
What annoys staff most is when something is broken, ICT know it is, but they do nothing. They don’t care how long it takes to fix, or how hard it is, they just want it fixed!
The conference is split up by business showcases. The less said about today’s presentation the better. Mainly because I couldn’t hear it and doubt I would have listened even if I could.
Creating user centric services whilst maintaining corporate compliance – is it possible in higher education?
Andrew Howe, Head of End User Services, University of St Andrews
I LOVED this presentation. Andrew was speaking my language. No more technology for technology’s sake. Andrew presented a list of ‘things’ our students use and want. I think this is dangerous. There are a lot of students who don’t use those things and have no interest in them. Try asking them? But remember if you ask them if they want it they’ll say yes. Instead ask what they want to do. Then find the technology to make that happen!
Andrew reminded us that staff are not always capable of doing what ICT expect from them. Thank you. Digital capabilities…they aren’t all Bill Gates…support them…bla bla bla. (Read my other posts)
20×20 More than just a degree
Sally Bogg, Head of End User Services, Leeds Beckett University
This was an incredibly personal, heartfelt and sincere presentation. Sally shared her life experiences and the transformative experience HE has been for her. It was wonderfully refreshing. It reminded me of why I started working in HE. Why I love it. Why I get up every day.
We can touch lives. We can change lives for the better.
Tim and I presented on the results and subsequent actions of a survey we sent to ICT and academic staff. If you work in HE you will appreciate there is a volatile relationship between the two. To summarise ICT don’t understand academics and academics don’t understand ICT. As a result everyone’s a bit dissatisfied and unsupported. We’re developing a ‘day in the life of’ session so they can share their experiences and develop understanding.
Dinner and Treasure Hunting
Dinner/food is the make or break of a conference. The dinner was informal BBQ style food. Long queue but the English revelled in it. Dinner was followed by a treasure hunt. The image for this post is our team cramming themselves in to a phone box. We were dedicated. The hunt was a walking tour of Leeds with some theft activities thrown in. Great fun and a brilliant ice-breaker.